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Friday, March 10, 2017

Too Hot to Handle: Lies Lies Lies, Yeah

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Once in a while everyone, no matter how trusting, comes across a news story that just doesn’t smell right.

Now, thanks to U.S. declassification protocols, we know that Fake News has been a real phenomenon since prior to 1975. President Trump is not huffing and puffing on Twitter over nothing. In fact, we now know the CIA is primarily to blame. The biggest names in media have a lengthy track record of publishing false stories actually written for them by the CIA: The New York Times, LA Times, Fortune, Newsweek and even the venerable Saturday Evening Post. Other news services would then pick up these stories from sources they believed were trustworthy, and the disinformation game was afoot.

Tom: Was it the Boomtown Rats who sang “Don’t Believe What You Read”, Immanuel Can?

Immanuel Can: Indeed it was. (Congrats on two lyric-drops in the first couple of paragraphs. That’s a record.)

Tom: Thank you. It was the eighties: the best of times, the worst of … ah, never mind.

Untrustworthy Words

IC: But I wonder what it means for us, those who love the Word, to see how untrustworthy the word (small “w”) has become.

Tom: Well, the first thing it means to me is that any of the faux patriotism or jingoism the media’s lies have ever ginned up in my poor, sad soul was wasted energy. Not because everything about geopolitics I believed to be true was a lie — I don’t think that for an instant. Lies lose their power when they’re ubiquitous and obvious. No, the reason these falsehoods have been so massively effective is because nine truths are told for every fabrication. We never know when the rubbish is coming. This is the devil’s trick, and it’s tremendously effective. He used it in the Garden of Eden.

IC: Yes, quite. Anybody who’s ever lied to an authority figure soon figures out that, in fact, the most powerful and plausible lie is the one that sticks as close to the truth as possible, and varies from the truth only when absolutely necessary. In that way, if the story is examined, most of the details will play out as verifiable, and hopefully the examiner never gets as far as the crucial lie.

To Fake or Not to Fake

But I think it’s not just remarkable that the news has been lying, but also how grossly misleading it has become. The lies it tells are no longer near enough to plausible.

Tom: Sure. And I’m willing to give a little latitude on that. A political poll, for instance, may be manipulated to give results that suit your purposes. You can cherry-pick your responders, or ask inflammatory or deceptive questions or whatever. But a fudged poll is not fake news: everybody understands it to be no more than opinion and prognostication. What’s fake about the news recently is two things: (1) the blatant, downright silly fabrications you mention; and (2) the passing off of opinion as hard data.

Andrew Klavan explains the second type of fakery:
“What the mainstream media always do is they report things that may or may not be true, and then they just assume them to be true. So they say, “There’s chaos in the White House.” Well, the Trump administration says, “Uh, there’s no chaos here. We’ve made some mistakes.” And they’re going forward, and it doesn’t seem like chaos to me, but I don’t know the truth; I’m not there. But then all the press does is they’ll lead every story with, “The chaotic opening month of the Trump administration” … the “chaos” this, the “chaos” that, “unpresidential” this …”
And he’s right. Watch for that technique. You’ll see it over and over.

An Anchorman with a Telescopic Shnozz

IC: I think the Trump election was a key moment in the exposure of this.

Tom: Without a doubt.

IC: The press was practically united on the idea that nobody — at least, nobody sensible — would ever vote for him, so another Democratic term was secure. But they were wrong; wildly wrong. And people saw. Then they saw the dismay in the faces of the newsmakers over the fact that they could no longer lead the American public by the nose wherever they wished. And they said, “Do you mean you actually have been playing us all along, controlling our electoral process by feeding us whatever story you wanted us to believe, and now you’re sad because for once we didn’t buy into your false narrative?” And even people who formerly had trusted their news just stopped. It was clear at that moment that these newspeople were not what they portrayed themselves to be, neutral presenters of facts, but rather massively hubristic manipulators and cheats.

Tom: Anchorpeople doing their best Pinocchio …

IC: And the public was insulted and said, “Never again.” We’ll see if that lasts.

Not-So-Perpetual Po-Mo Cynicism

Tom: Probably not. The difficulty is this: there’s no value in perpetual post-modern cynicism, by which I mean the abandonment of the search for truth. Even the most devout post-modernists are inconsistent in practice about truth-seeking. As Fox Mulder used to say, “I want to believe.” We do, even if we say we don’t. I work with a man who was shocked during the election at all the lies that were revealed. But what does he pipe into his head all day as he’s working? He chooses CNN. So it’s almost like he’s deliberately lulling himself back to sleep. After all, challenging everything you’re told is too much work for most people, and that’s why the occasional bald-faced lie is so effective.

IC: There was apparently an interesting contention between philosophers Descartes and Spinoza over the question of how people come to believe things. Descartes held that people are essentially rational and skeptical: they disbelieve until you give them reasons to believe. Nonsense, said Spinoza: they tend to accept first, and then only disbelieve if they find sufficient reasons to doubt later on.

It turns out that essentially Spinoza was right, as confirmed later by psychologists. People tend, especially under time pressure, to opt to trust whatever others say to them, unless they already have — or find shortly thereafter — some powerful reason to disbelieve. And for too long, we’ve just accepted the impression that news was there to provide us with balanced “facts” and “information”, just as they say they are; only now have we found a powerful enough reason to see that they are driving us with an agenda of their own. But I think many of us are starting to see it now.

One in Ten Words Will Reach You

Tom: A couple of days before Mike Flynn resigned you could feel the media getting excited. They knew they had a win coming. And a number of people on the Right, newly clued-in to how comprehensively they had been deceived, kept insisting that President Trump jump in and defend Flynn against the media attack. Prudently, he didn’t. But when Flynn resigned, the media jumped for joy and said, “See, you thought we were Fake News, and we just told the truth!” And they had. Which enabled them to go right back to lying again.

IC: They did do that. But I wonder if they will ever again have the level of trust and influence they have now forfeited. The reason I say that is this: young people, the under-30 demographic, are increasingly likely to cherry-pick their news off the Internet. What decides their views is likely to be a combo of multiple agenda-driven sites, some raw YouTube video, some blogs, a few chats they’ve jumped into online, and so on ... in other words, mixed sources. The days of monolithic TV stations and newspapers are waning very fast. It’s much harder to control the narrative when you don’t even know where the audience is going to choose to be, and to whom they are going to choose to listen.

Trolls Under the Bridge … er, Main Article

Tom: This fear of being tuned out by millennials has actually given rise to the latest social media trend, which is paid trolls in the comment sections of political blogs and YouTube uploaders with large reader/viewerships. Since they can’t get you to watch Tom Brokaw, they’re going where people’s opinions are actually being formed and trying to strangle the baby ideologies they don’t like in the cradle.

But let’s get back to your original question: Here we are, IC, and if we’re smart, we can’t be 100% sure of anything we read these days. Even well-intentioned, trustworthy sources can be deceived or become enthusiastic over a conveniently placed piece of misinformation.

So what does this legitimate cynicism about the media mean for the individual Christian, and for the church?

I’ve already suggested it’s kicked any sense of patriotism I used to have in the teeth, and that’s okay. As Christians, we have an obligation to obey the “powers that be” which God has ordained. So we do our duty. What we don’t have to do is get on board any particular political ideology-train and cheer about it, because we may find the train is going in the wrong direction.

Ersatz Replacements for Individual Moral Responsibility

IC: That’s good advice. Ideology is never the answer for anything. At its best, it’s “worldly wisdom”, strictly limited in its truthfulness or utility. At its worst, it’s a pack of devilish lies. And there is no “Christian” party or faction ... there are only parties and factions that are degrees of corrupt, wrong and misguided. These sorts of collective-thinking groups are actually ersatz replacements for individual moral responsibility before God. Immersion in them cannot prevent us from being called to account for such responsibility, but they can delude us into moral unresponsiveness — into thinking the group is accountable so we don’t have to be.

Tom: I also think it’s important is to inoculate our kids against false arguments from both sides of the political aisle. Teaching them to spot social justice hypocrisy and virtue signaling is fairly easy, but they need to be able to spot baloney whether it’s coming from neocon warmongers or would-be-fascist liberals. The fact is, we don’t know that America (or Canada, for that matter) are the “good guys” on the world stage. There may be no “good guys” at all.

Calling Up the Reserve(s)

Would maintaining a healthy reserve about what we hear in the media affect anything we’re doing in our churches, IC?

IC: You mean beyond (a) being skeptical of what they tell you is the “truth” about things, and (b) not imitating their forms or habits?

Tom: Yes. I’m talking about things we do corporately, as opposed to our individual mindset and practices. Collective testimony. Policy things. Outreach things. Things we pool the Lord’s money to spend on.

IC: Ah, okay. I think I’ve got you now. Well, there are narratives the news media likes to float, and sometimes churches pick up on them for funding or for “corporate action”. One example, a few years back, is that several of us Christians who knew better had to resist a fellow who wanted to channel funds to an alleged “Palestinian support” group that was a front for virulent anti-Semitism. (We won that one, but not easily.)

Tom: Yes, I can see where misinformation and media propaganda would play a big part in that. I worked with a guy who was aggressively anti-Israel because he’d uncritically absorbed the Lefty narrative. There was no discussing it with him.

Meme Absorption

IC: Another corporate example would be the gay and transsexual agendas, in which “acceptance” is floated as “loving”. Or there’s the men-and-women-are-the-same meme, or the Muslims-worship-the-same-god-as-us meme, or the we-owe-it-to-accept-all-people-into-a-country meme, and so on. Very often today, Christians forget to read their Bibles before hopping on board the social justice train. At the same time, the press likes to define to us what constitutes a “Christian cause” or what “true Christian morality” is, and some of us don’t know any better. Yet.

Tom: Yes. You’re not going to get universal agreement among Christians over these things because of maturity differences and denominational doctrinal slants, but it’s important for the elders in any given church to orient their beliefs from the word of God so that they can defend the most biblical position on any issue — especially when the most biblical position is reserving judgment or staying right out of it, which is something most of us can’t seem to do easily.

IC: What’s also interesting is what the press doesn’t cover. The death of one Syrian (alleged) refugee child is blazed across the world. Meanwhile, the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Christians every year in the same territories goes entirely unreported. Or if some loose cannon shoots one abortion doctor one time, it’s frontline news, but if nearly a million babies are slaughtered every year by that doctor and his pals, that’s all quite unremarkable; and it’s almost instantly reported that he probably did it because he was some sort of “Christian” or “conservative” fanatic. But let a dozen Muslim gunmen or bombers kill hundreds in a nightclub, screaming “Allahu Akbar” and there will be a long hold on their names, then plenty of admonishments not to jump to conclusions. If a celebrity dies, it’s always painted as an unconditional tragedy, whether the cause was his or her promiscuity, drug abuse, alcoholism, or violent choice of lifestyle: moral responsibility is not something they ever talk about then ...

The Last Word

Tom: So we’re coming back to a drum we’ve beaten before here, which is that the people of God need to be people of discernment, not bandwagon-jumpers or signalers of virtue. And sometimes that discernment will lead us to admit “I don’t know about that,” or “I don’t know yet.”

IC: Canadian novelist D.A. Richards once wrote, “There is no worse flaw in man’s character than that of wanting to belong.” We all want to be in the “righteous” group, but many of us are not willing to have real righteousness to get there. This is exhibited very clearly in the modern press. They see themselves as righteous instructors in the truth, all the while assuming that the Leftist values in which they were raised, or which their particular liberal group of peers believes, are the only “real” values. They suppose that reporting the news isn't enough; they must select, redact and reshape it. They imagine their job is convincing people that the news confirms all their unexamined Leftist values, not just providing facts. Thus, they are quick to take the supposed moral high ground, but utterly uninterested in whether or not they ever deserve it.

To quote Richards again, for the Christian, all our conventional news media really seem to offer today is, “the pedestrian moral high-mindedness of accusation unaccompanied by the search for truth.”

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